The cinema of Laurent Cantet

Lead Research Organisation: Nottingham Trent University
Department Name: Sch of Arts and Humanities

Abstract

Laurent Cantet is one of the leading contemporary film-makers in France. His work repeatedly engages with questions of power and his different films deal with the new world of work, the Republican school, its utopian capacities and hidden inequalities, and the asymmetrical power relations of tourism in a neo-colonial context. He has also taken part in various mobilisations by French film professionals in support of groups such as paperless migrants. He could thus be seen as a committed film-maker, but not one that necessarily follows earlier models. His working methods also suggest an awareness of the politics of the film-making process itself. Although he co-writes his films and sometimes adapts existing works, he also invites his often non-professional actors to participate in the elaboration of the script in a deliberate letting go of his own power.

The research project aims to engage with these dimensions of Cantet's work, analysing the nature of the intervention he makes in debates around the social role of salaried labour and the French Republic's hidden exclusions and treatment of migrants and looking more broadly at his exploration of social groups and their power dynamics. The project will draw on the researcher's experience as a film studies scholar and his extensive knowledge of contemporary France. It will thus work at the intersection of French studies and film studies and constantly work to make productive connections between contextual knowledge, on the one hand, and the skills of close analysis, on the other. It will engage with works of sociology and social and political theory as and where this is relevant and productive. Examining the way Cantet questions his own directorial power, it will ask to what extent Cantet's work offers a new more egalitarian and dialogic mode of authorship. It will also use Cantet as a case study to ask how he renews our understanding of commitment in a period when leftist parties no longer frame and structure cultural resistances as they once did.

Because the research is interested in the politics of film-making, it will of necessity explore the circumstances surrounding the production of the films and their conditions of existence and circulation in a context where many low and medium budget films struggle for public visibility. At the same time, the research will consider the nature of the public impact of the films, looking at their reception history, but also looking at their capacity to structure public debate through the kind of post-projection discussions now so common in France. Again, the thrust here will be to ask broader questions about cinema's role in opening a space for public participation when other more traditional forums have become less available.

The researcher has a strongly established expertise in French cinema and particularly in its political dimension. This research will therefore build on substantial earlier work, taking some of its key questions forward (about the need to redefine our understanding of political cinema for new times) but refining them by testing their application to a particularly interesting and significant individual case.

Planned Impact

This is not the kind of research that generates direct impact. Its primary value is in its contribution to academic scholarship. However, the investigator frequently presents films to public audiences and has at time participated in broader discussions around screenings. He will do the same with this research and will take all possible opportunities to bring elements of it to a wider public.

Publications

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Description This grant allowed me to finish my work researching one of France's leading contemporary film-makers, Laurent Cantet. Apart from the intrinsic interest of his work, Cantet is significant because of how his films address current issues and cast light on contemporary political cinema, the strategies it adopts and the limits with which it has to deal. My work showed that, despite the wide range of themes addressed by Cantet's work, there are consistent underlying practices that give his work a real unity. He always explores power relations, particularly as they are worked out across the spaces of a film. He probes the relationships between individuals, groups and broader contexts and uses melodramatic moments of shame to drive underlying tensions to the surface. He questions utopias, both conservative and progressive. But he does these things in an investigative way, without imposing his own answers or indeed his own thematic concerns on the contexts he explores. Because his work is open in this way, it is able to open itself up to the voices of the amateur actors he so likes to use and the novelists he has chosen to adapt. What I hope to have shown in my research is that by so consistently probing power differentials and utopian possibilities and by developing an egalitarian directorial presence without ever imposing answers, Cantet provides one compelling model of what committed film-making might be at the current time.

Within the broader umbrella of the AHRC 'Translating Cultures' project, my work on Cantet has drawn particular attention to how different voices, especially those from different cultural contexts or from minority groups, can be made to co-exist in a work without one voice subsuming or subordinating the others. I drew particularly on Bakhtin's concept of the polyphonic text to illuminate this aspect of my work. I suggest that it is partly the polyphonic nature of Cantet's films, and their exploration of the unresolved tension between the individual and collective that makes them so relevant to the current moment. More recently, I have drawn on the work of Jean-Luc Nancy and his notion of singular-plural selves to cast light on Cantet's exploration of the relationship between self, group and broader society in his films. I argue that in their refusal of self-contained individualism and social fusion, Cantet's films are both decidedly Nancean and of particular relevance to the current moment when neither radical individualism nor communitarianism seem to offer productive ways forward. More recently still, I have brought a comparative dimension to my work on Cantet by looking at his work Heading South (Vers le sud) (2006) alongside other films that engage with the tricky topic of women's 'romance' tourism: I have compared how the films deal with both North-South disparities in power and the rise of emotional labour in a context of bounded intimacy.

I have also incorporated my work on Cantet into my broader exploration of cinematic responses to neo-liberalism, its modes of governance and the types of subjectivity it develops, whether in the workplace or in relation to debt.

My work has been taken to a wider public through peer-reviewed articles, a book (Laurent Cantet, Manchester University Press, 2015), book chapters, and other public engagements, both in the UK and abroad. It has a web presence as per the URL listed below and through the much frequented H-France website (see http://h-france.net/fffh/maybe-missed/3308/ ).
Exploitation Route My work should help stimulate debate about contemporary French film, about the changing nature of political cinema more broadly, and about how film addresses some major current issues (debt, the changing world of work, neo-liberal governance and subjectivities, the tension between individualism and communitarianism).
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://lafranceetlacrise.org/2013/09/16/film-and-debt-1-self-investment-evaluation-and-governance-in-the-work-of-laurent-cantet/
 
Description The main general pathway to impact for my research on film is through educational outreach. My work on Cantet follows this pattern, not least because Cantet's most successful film, The Class (2008), is on the new 'A' level syllabus for several boards. I did a workshop on the film for 'A' level students and their teachers as part of the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France (ASMCF) outreach day on September 9th 2015. Feedback from the participants was very positive indeed. I have also made key insights from my research on the film available to a broader, international public by contributing an essay on the film to the H-France website, a site which gets approximately 10,000 hits per year. The essay, published in November 2015, can be found here: http://h-france.net/fffh/maybe-missed/3308/ . On Saturday February 4th 2017, I ran a Saturday school on Cantet at Nottingham's Broadway cinema: this involved a general introduction to the director's work, a screening of his film, The Class, and a very lively 30-minute post-film discussion. There were 40 attendees in a mixed audience of sixth-formers, teachers and the general public. On February 17th 2017, I did a public talk on Cantet's films for the Derby French Circle. About 25 people attended and the talk was followed by a lively discussion. I led a public discussion of Cantet's The Class at the Boradway Cinema, Nottingham on Sunday 11th February 2018: the talk was attended by 25-30 people (members of Nottingham Anglo-French Society and local sixth-form students). Discussion was again lively.
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description 17th February, 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was an invited talk at the Derby French Circle. I gave a talk of approximately 50 minutes followed by a lively discussion with the audience. The talk was a general introduction to Cantet as a film-maker with an explanation of the main features of his work. The talk included commentary on excerpts from his films. The whole event was carried out in French. Several audience members reported that they would seek out some Cantet films to watch.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.derbyfrenchcircle.org.uk/DerbyFrenchCircleProgrammeListPrevious.aspx
 
Description Cantet study day at Broadway Cinema and Media Centre, Nottingham, Saturday 4th February, 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The activity was designed to present sixth form students and their teachers with ways into the work of Laurent Cantet. There was a preliminary session introducing the film-maker and the specificity of his work. Then, there was a screening of his 2008 film, Entre les Murs (The Class). Finally, there was a very lively post-screen discussion. People there reported that they now saw new ways into the director's films.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.broadway.org.uk/events/film-focus-on-laurent-cantet-and-the-class
 
Description Conference paper at Modern and Contemporary France conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I delivered a paper entitled 'Cantet's Entre les murs and mythologies of Republican education' at 'Myth-making', the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France annual conference, held at the University of Hull, 8th-11th September 2015. The paper was followed by a lively question and answer session that helped me refine the ideas presented in it.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Conference paper at Radical Film Network conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I delivered a paper entitled 'Laurent Cantet and Contemporary Political Film' at the Radical Cinema Network annual conference, 'Political Cinema in the 21st Century' held at Birmingham City University, February 7th-8th, 2015. The conference was open to the public and attended by academics, film-makers and people in the alternative exhibition and distribution sectors. The paper was followed by a lively and stimulating discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.radicalfilmnetwork.com/conference.html
 
Description Conference paper: 'Cantet and Shame: confronting the look of others and the objectified self' at the European Cinema Research Forum conference 2013 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact There was a lively question and answer session afterwards

Response to the talk helped me refine my research and fed into improved written outputs.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/literatures-languages-cultures/delc/conferences-seminars-eve...
 
Description Conference paper: 'Debt, Governance and Subjectivity in the Films of Laurent Cantet and the Dardenne Brothers': 20th/21st CENTURY FRENCH & FRANCOPHONE STUDIES INTERNATIONAL COLLOQUIUM 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact The paper was part of a very coherent and successful panel.

People expressed real interest in the paper and its themes.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.academia.edu/6313365/20th_21st_CENTURY_FRENCH_and_FRANCOPHONE_STUDIES_INTERNATIONAL_COLLO...
 
Description Guest lecture and seminar at the University of Iowa 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact There was lively discussion at both the seminar and the lecture. The colleague who invited me reported a high level of interest among her students. My talks were about how contemporary cinema addresses the question of debt. This is a topic that speaks with great urgency to American students, many of whom are heavily indebted.

There was lively discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Post-screening discussion of Laurent Cantet's The Class 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a post-screening discussion of Cantet's film The Class. It began with a presentation of the director's work by M. O'Shaughnessy and continued with a lively discussion involving members of Nottingham Anglo-French Society and 'A' level students and their teachers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018